Willow tensed. She knew the source of that voice all too well – the long, drawn out greeting punctuated by the jarring, rapid footsteps of the cub tearing out of the nearby Gathering Den and toward her. She stopped in her tracks and waited for the inevitable impact of a small body colliding with her legs.
And, moments later, Glow did just that, and uttered a small, “Oof!”
Willow braced herself again. It was what the little terror-cub always did after this that the healer disliked the most.
Yoink! Small fingers wrapped themselves around Willow's past-knee-length braid and pulled. Hard. High Ones, it hurt.
Yoink! Yoink! Yoink! Glow giggled and kept pulling on the braid like it was a rope.
“Arrrgh! Stop!” Willow growled and tried turning away, but Glow didn't notice. The cub squealed and made a game of trying to run behind Willow's back with braid still in-hand. It was only when Chicory bolted out and scooped Glow up into her arms that Glow was persuaded to let go.
“Some grumpy wolves might snap at her if she did that to their tail. My Bristle would have,” Willow grumbled at Chicory and at Rainpace, who had also joined the scene and was shooting Willow an apologetic look. “You'd better figure out how to get her to quit doing that before you have to bring her to me to heal a nasty bite wound.”
Glow squealed and leaned toward Willow with her arms extended, but Chicory shifted the cub to her other hip. Glow howled in protest.
“She just wants you to pay attention to her,” Chicory reasoned. “The only way she can get any reaction out of you is when she pulls on your hair.”
“Why don't you just hold her for a little while? That's all she wants,” Rainpace added.
But Willow made a face at that suggestion. “You know I don't like cubs,” she said. “There are enough around who will hold her and dote on her.”
Glow leaned over dangerously with arms outstretched again. “Willow!” she cried, trying to grab for the long-braided elf, but Willow backed away.
“Besides,” Willow said, “She just wants to pull my hair again, and I've had enough of that for one eve.”
Chicory was clearly disappointed as she turned and started to carry the toddler back toward the gathering den. “Suit yourself,” she responded flatly as Glow started to cry and howl Willow's name.
Rainpace watched his Recognized walk away and frowned. “I know you don't like cubs – you never have. But couldn't you just be nice to mine for a change? She knows you're her papa's friend.... she just wants to be friends with you, too.”
Willow shook her head and rubbed the achy spot on her scalp with her fingers. She would not be swayed. “Sorry, Rainpace. Maybe when she's old enough to keep her hands to herself, but, for now... my head hurts.”
It had been easy to walk away from the Dentrees and go on with the things she'd planned for the eve at the time, but as night passed and Willow checked her traps, she started to feel badly about what she had said to Rainpace about Glow earlier.
As she knelt to re-string a snare that had been gnawed apart by some kind of prey-thief – a fox, judging from the pattern of the tracks leading away – what Rainpace had said about her not being nice to Glow kept running through her mind. She wasn't being mean to Glow, was she? It's just that she never had cared for cubs – they tended to get clingy if you even hinted that you liked them, and then you tended to get roped into cubsitting when their parents wanted a break. And Willow hated watching cubs.
“Leave that chore to the ones who enjoy it,” she grumbled to herself.
She finished setting the little snare that had been destroyed and tugged on it lightly just to make sure the knot held. If the snare worked right, a rabbit or weasel or fox would catch its foot through the loop, and then the snare would pull tight and prevent the animal's escape.
Images immediately drifted into Willow's head of Glow yanking on her braid and playing that little game of 'catch-me-if-you-can.' Her scalp started to ache in sympathy.
And then, another thought came to her: Sometimes, something breaks the snare, and that lets the trapped creature get away...
Willow sat back on her heels at that, and she pulled her long braid around in front of her. It had taken her many turns of the seasons to grow her hair this long. When it was braided up, it nearly touched the ground...
...and hung within a grabby toddler-cub's reach.
Maybe that was the temptation. Maybe it was time for a change.
Without a second thought, she picked her bone knife up from where she'd set it on the ground after cutting the snare-rope and held the blade up to the braid, more that mid-way to the top.
And then, she slowly sliced through the bundle of hair until the bottom part of her braid fell limp, like a lifeless snake, in her other hand.
Willow shook her head and ran her fingers through hair that now fell only to her mid-back. Her head certainly felt much lighter now. She chuckled to herself and wondered what she looked like, or what parts of her hair Greenweave might want to 'fix' after what she'd done. She wondered what Beetle and the others would think when they saw her with her braid lopped off.
She wondered what Glow would do now that there wasn't a braid to yank on.
Besides, if it turned out too badly, Willow reasoned, she could always make her hair grow back. She'd done it for Beetle; why couldn't she do it for herself?
The familiar, choppy greeting, coupled with the patter of rapidly advancing feet, met Willow's ears as she stepped back into the Holt proper carrying the night's catch in one hand and her braid in the other. She stopped in her tracks and waited for the inevitable impact of a small body colliding with her legs.
Moments later, Glow did just that, and uttered a small, “Oof!”
“Watch yourself, sprout,” Willow cautioned the cub, who had already recovered from the collision and was now eyeing the end of Willow's braid. Glow wrapped her tiny fingers around the end of it and pulled on it with all her might...
… and went wide-eyed in surprise when the braid fell into her hands and didn't make Willow yelp at all.
“No more braid-pulling,” Willow scolded, and Glow looked up at her. “No more,” Willow repeated. “It's gone.”
Glow looked down at the long, braided hair in her hand, and then let it drop to the ground. Then, she shrieked, “Willow!” and wrapped her arms around the healer's leg, hugging it tightly. “Willow! Willow! I like you!”
And, suddenly, for reasons she couldn't quite understand, the healer found herself disarmed and speechless.
“High Ones, what did you do to your hair?!?” Rainpace asked, drawing Willow's attention toward the Dentrees from which he'd just emerged and away from the cub at her feet.
“I cut it. That's all.”
Rainpace snickered. “And it didn't work, did it?” He tilted his head toward Glow, who was hugging Willow's leg all the more tightly. Willow knew her good friend knew her all too well to not guess the real reason why she had cut her hair.
Willow laughed in spite of herself. “No, it didn't work at all.”
“Here, let me take her.” Rainpace stepped forward to retrieve his clinging child.
“No, it's all right. Let her be.” Willow's reply earned her a confused look from Rainpace, and when she reached down and tentatively ruffled Glow's brindled hair, Rainpace's confused look grew all the more serious.
“Are you feeling well?” Rainpace asked, taking a step back.
Willow snorted amusedly. “I'm fine.” Then, she plopped her string of rabbits in her friend's arms and bent down to pick Glow up. It felt a little awkward lifting the cub, but Willow managed to pick Glow up off her feet.
Glow wrapped her arms around Willow's neck and grinned triumphantly at her father. “Papa, I like Willow,” she chortled.
“I think Willow likes you, too,” Rainpace grinned back.
“Pfft,” Willow said, mock-dismissively, but she secretly squeezed the cub in her arms. “Help me skin those rabbits while they're still edible, would you?” she requested. When she took a few steps forward, and noticed her shocked friend wasn't following, she turned back to him. “Well, c'mon! And while you're at it, would you pick up my braid?”